W&M professor key player in NASA Mars research

As if there wouldn’t be enough problems on our planet waiting for solutions, it turns out Mars has a very dusty environment.

Windblown dust ranging in size from sub-micron size to several tens of microns originating from the surface regolith of Mars is a constant feature of the atmosphere of the planet. During regional and global dust storms, the atmospheric dust is so thick that the surface of Mars is totally obscured from observation from Earth.

The Apollo astronauts had a very negative experiences with lunar dust. It permeated all mechanical systems, including the astronaut’s space suits and the Apollo landing capsule. On the return trip to Earth, the lunar dust affected many systems on the return capsule, including the cabin air-circulating system.

All this information comes from Dr. Joel Levine, organizer and conveyor of NASA’s “Mars Dust Workshop,” which was held to explore the impact of Mars’ atmospheric dust on human exploration.

Levine served for 41 years as NASA’s senior research scientist and as a Mars Scout Program scientist. He was also an investigator at NASA’s Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. Levine currently serves as research professor in the Department of Applied Science at the College of William and Mary,

As an investigator at the Copernicus Observatory, he measured hydrogen in the upper atmosphere of Mars and developed numerical models of it for the Viking Project scientists. The Viking Lander 1 successfully soft-landed on Mars on July 20, 1976, and a few months later, the Viking Lander 2 did the same. Both crafts arrived with complex payloads of scientific instruments to investigate the atmosphere and the surface of the Red Planet. The Viking-developed techniques for entry, descent and landing have been incorporated in every subsequent Mars-soft-landing mission.

According to Levine, the first human landing on Mars is scheduled for the mid-2030s. Today, the U.S. is planning and developing the mission’s architecture and hardware — the Space Launch System and the Orion passenger capsule — for future landings.

Levine, in an interview with the Gazette, explained that the impact of Mars’ atmospheric dust on the health of the astronauts and on the safety of human surface operations has been the subject of concern in several National Research Council and NASA reports.

He pointed out that living on the Martian surface requires the development of substantially capable habitation systems. “Habitats must keep crew members healthy and happy for the duration of surface missions. Dealing with the dusty environment on Mars and keeping the dust below permissible limits within the surface habitats will drive habitat design decisions.”

Martian dust is potentially toxic, causing deleterious physiological effects, including respiratory illness and eye/skin irritation. Martian dust contains fine-grained silicate minerals. If breathed in, the dust would react with water in the lungs to create damaging chemicals.

To assess the impact of Mars’ atmospheric dust on astronaut health, Levine, at the request of NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center, organized and convened a “Mars Dust Workshop” that was attended by about 65 scientist, engineers, medical researchers and Mars mission planners from the U.S., England, France and Japan.

Now, Levine is preparing a book containing roughly 20 chapters of technical papers dealing with the human exploration of Mars, mission planning, surface operations, dust in the atmosphere and its impact on human health.

In a previous interview with the Gazette, reflecting on the importance of learning about the history of Mars, Levine said: “It appears that over its history, Mars experienced catastrophic climate change. What caused this catastrophic climate change on Mars? Does it portend a warning for the future of our planet?”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Store and Amazon.com.

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